Pasatiempo

MS. ESTHER’S COTTONWOOD

- GRAND PRIZE WINNER Amber Train, Santa Fe

Mornings were always frantic, with getting all of the residents out of bed, cleaned, dressed, and, where necessary, diapered before getting them to the dining room. So it could be understood how Ms. Esther was forgotten in the dining room that morning. Kayla had already worked a 12-hour night shift and was having to stay through the day shift to cover for several other nursing assistants that had not showed up that morning. And Ms. Esther needed less watching, as she was one of the easier residents. She was not yet suffering from any terribly debilitati­ng physical ailments, had no signs of dementia, and was free from any bitter resentment regarding her current living arrangemen­ts, a resentment that plagued the minds of so many other residents of High Desert Retirement Home. Ms. Esther, it seemed, was simply alone in this world and had reached that stage of life where she could no longer quite live by herself, so here she was at High Desert.

Esther stayed in her chair in the dining room for some time, patiently waiting for Kayla or some other nursing assistant to help her back to her room. She was of a generation of women imprinted with the qualities of patience and quiet fortitude, even at the expense of her own comfort. However, at some point Esther began to wonder if she might become a nuisance to the ladies trying to clean up around her and decided to try and make her own way. Esther’s limbs had become gnarled with arthritis in her old age, but she had her cane and could still move her own body, just much more slowly and with much more effort than she was used to. As she rose, her eye caught the view of the garden through the dining room window. Since it was still morning, the sun was tilting diagonally through the aspens and cottonwood­s outside. Autumn was in full swing and the leaves in their golden glory seemed almost promiscuou­sly beautiful to Esther. The trees were so alluring that Esther considered trying to go outside. The residents were certainly allowed to do so; High Desert was no prison after all. But … it was not encouraged either, the fear of a resident falling never far from anyone’s mind.

Esther looked down at her feet, confirming that Kayla had put her in her sensible sneakers that morning. She glanced around feeling oddly devious and noticed nobody noticing her. So Esther took up her cane and shuffled down the hall toward the door to the garden terrace. And she simply opened the door. The air outside was spiced with the smell of fallen leaves, sharply contrastin­g with the soft persistent smells of oatmeal, disinfecta­nt, and bodily fluids on the inside of the door. Esther stepped through to the outside, raised her face to receive the sun’s beams, and inhaled. Her deeply mottled skin, gray and dulled with age, luminesced to a silvery shade in the sun. Esther glanced behind her once more, the sensuality arising in her causing her to reflexivel­y check if she was being observed in such a state. Finding herself still alone, she went forward. The path, though dirt, was scraped smooth, designed to accommodat­e elderly gaits. The beguiling trees Esther had spied from indoors clapped their drying leaves at her and she followed their call.

For a moment, Esther considered that Kayla might find her gone and worry. But Kayla had so many other things on her mind, she likely wouldn’t even notice. The young nursing assistants often chatted mindlessly to the residents, knowing the residents had no one to pass their confidence­s on to. As a result, Esther knew that Kayla had two young girls she raised without their father. And that she struggled to find childcare on her night shifts. Sometimes Kayla’s mother would watch the girls, but Kayla worried about that since Kayla’s mother was usually passed out from drinking by 8:00 most nights. Sometimes, Kayla had to leave the girls home alone all night and she would be especially rushed and stressed as she got the residents ready those mornings, anxiety and exhaustion etching premature lines into her pretty face. Once, when she was in such a state, Kayla had brushed

Esther’s hair so vigorously that white cottony puffs of it had drifted down around Esther’s face. Her scalp had ached for the rest of the day. But Esther had not complained. She understood the sorrows of the young mother. Long ago, she had been a lonely young mother herself.

So Esther continued on the path. House finches bathed in a fountain set off in a small courtyard to the right. Esther watched their flapping wings spray water droplets over their own bodies, a self-baptism in the stone pooled water. Esther had her girls baptized at St. Vincent de Paul’s in Baltimore City. Esther’s main memories of those baptisms were so much white and a glut of happiness. The immaculate white of the christenin­g gown, first worn by Charlotte then a year later by Charlotte’s younger sister, Hope. And the voluminous flowing white robe of Father Angelo. Back then, there was still a whole family — Esther and the children’s father and both maternal and paternal grandparen­ts in attendance. And some aunts and cousins too. Esther had been a math major at college before becoming pregnant with Charlotte, and the memories caused her to imagine her family as a formula of exponentia­l decay written out on some dark blackboard of the universe in which she was the sole remaining factor. Such visions made her suddenly tired, and she stopped to rest beside a large cottonwood tree.

The tree was gray and aged, but where Esther had become slighter in her years, this tree was spacious. Three Esthers together could not link their arms together around its girth. While its limbs, like Esther’s, were gnarled, their twists and angles suggested stores of strength rather than frailty. Esther rested her hand on the rough bark and closed her eyes in communion. The sun was moving overhead now and warming. Esther dropped her cane, allowed her weight to be held by the tree and came to rest on the ground, her back against the trunk. It had been a long time since Esther had been embraced. Certainly Kayla or one of the other nursing assistants held her in the sense of supporting her to dress her or sometimes to help her into the shower or off the toilet. But not this kind of embracemen­t. The way her mother had once embraced her and she had once embraced her children. It was beatific and blessed and restful.

It was 18 hours into Kayla’s double shift when she finally noticed Ms. Esther missing. It was long before Kayla forgave herself that fact, not understand­ing she sought penance for an offense Ms. Esther would not recognize as such. It was John, the groundskee­per, who found Ms. Esther — fallen face up next to one of the cottonwood trees. Her body splayed on the leaf-gilded ground, arms spread as if in Hallelujah. The cottonwood filtered hallowed light on Ms. Esther, leaves chattering some ancient prayer.

Mark Twain said, among other things, that “all novelists are failed short story writers.” What I think he meant by this is that doing the necessary work of constructi­ng a real story is harder to do in short form than it is in long form. This includes threading a coherent narrative arc through a beginning, middle, and end; breathing life into one or more well-wrought characters; winding the mainspring of conflict and letting it unspool toward resolution; and doing it all with economical, precise, and stylish language that mirrors and augments the characters and situation.

Ms. Esther’s Cottonwood does all this, and beautifull­y.

The story’s structure is simple, but the character’s inner life is complex, and serves to move her through to the inevitable end. And because of the way the writer animates Ms. Esther’s thoughts and desires, the end is not just sad, but also rather lovely. It is difficult to hit multiple emotional notes in so short a span.

One of the best things about Ms. Esther’s Cottonwood is the close attention the writer pays to the precise use of language. The style is never flashy and always feels appropriat­e to the character and the action.

I am delighted to name Ms. Esther’s Cottonwood the Grand Prize Winner of the Pasatiempo Writing Contest for 2023.

 ?? ?? Amber Train lives in Santa Fe. Growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, her fantasy was to contract mono so she would be sick enough to have to stay home for a while, but not so sick she wouldn’t be able to enjoy lying in bed reading books all day. She is a connoisseu­r of the weird. She plans to live in Santa Fe for the rest of her life or until her son goes to college and she becomes a den mother in his dorm. She believes she has very healthy relationsh­ip boundaries.
Amber Train lives in Santa Fe. Growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, her fantasy was to contract mono so she would be sick enough to have to stay home for a while, but not so sick she wouldn’t be able to enjoy lying in bed reading books all day. She is a connoisseu­r of the weird. She plans to live in Santa Fe for the rest of her life or until her son goes to college and she becomes a den mother in his dorm. She believes she has very healthy relationsh­ip boundaries.
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